The tale of Aldrich Ames, the CIA intelligence officer now serving a life sentence in federal prison for selling secrets to the Russians between 1985 and his arrest in February 1994, has been examined in four new books crammed with true names and organizational detail—which would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. From these varying accounts of Ames’s amazing success in eluding discovery by Agency counterintelligence sleuths known as “mole hunters” we may abstract eight useful axioms for understanding covert intelligence activities during the cold war.
- What goes around comes around.
The Central Intelligence Agency was the last of the major clandestine belligerents to experience the agony and humiliation of discovering a viper in its nest. The British, French, Germans, and Russians had each in their turn been through the political trauma of having to explain how it could have happened. The names of Kim Philby in Britain and Hans Felfe in Germany remain bywords for treachery to this day. But no shock was deeper than the one suffered by the Russians on June 13, 1985, when they learned that eleven trusted officials, nine of them members of the KGB or the GRU, the Soviet military intelligence service, had been spying for the Americans.
The shock was so great that the Russian government abandoned every rule of counterintelligence tradecraft and ordered the wholesale arrest of the newly discovered spies. At least ten would eventually be executed. By the end of the year the spy runners of the CIA in turn realized they had been struck by a disaster—the Russians appeared to be arresting every American agent. The explanation could only be compromise by some ghastly technical innovation—a new Russian code-breaking capacity, a well-placed bug or the like—or something worse still, an intelligence officer gone bad, a traitor within, a mole. In October 1986 an apologetic KGB case officer, Vladimir Mechulayev, assured his star American agent during one of their rare face-to-face meetings in Rome that he had been unable to stop the arrests, that his hands had been tied by orders from above—presumably from the Politburo and perhaps even Mikhail Gorbachev himself—but that every effort would be made to protect him by sending the CIA off on one futile chase after another. The star agent was so drunk by the end of the meeting that he forgot to return the next night as instructed for one of his many substantial cash payments—well over $2 million in all with promise of more.
“Vlad,” as Aldrich Ames called his handler, was as good as his word, and Russian tactics to protect him, combined with some foot-dragging and wishful thinking by the CIA itself, no doubt gradually convinced Ames over the next eight years that God loves a sinner. But on the morning of February 21, 1994, a Monday and a holiday, Ames discovered it was not so, and the CIA was finally subjected to the common fate of cold war intelligence services—the humiliating revelation that it had been betrayed for years by a man it trusted with its most secret secrets.
- The guy wearing the T-shirt saying “It’s me! It’s me!” is the guy.
In the hierarchy of awful things that can happen to the public reputation of an intelligence service, the discovery of a traitor within is bad, the discovery that he has been at it for years is worse, and the worst of all, by far, is the discovery that he was the obvious and inevitable candidate for suspicion from day one. Just why Aldrich Ames left so many careless clues to his spying for the Russians remains locked within his psychic history, but it is obvious in retrospect that catching him should have been a routine exercise once the Soviet/East European (SE) Division noted the sudden disappearance of its spies in the fall of 1985.
No finger pointed at Ames before he approached the Russians in April 1985. He was a shy and bookish sort of man, the son of a former CIA official, who had shown little talent for fieldwork during a tour in Turkey in the 1970s; but he performed well later in New York, where he was assigned to keep watch on two important Soviet spies including the high UN official Arkady Shevchenko, who later defected to the United States. Ames had a drinking problem but so did a great many other CIA officers; he was getting a divorce and broke but that was not unusual either.
But Ames’s style as a spy was reckless and conspicuous from the first day, when he walked into the Soviet embassy in Washington (which was under constant surveillance by the FBI as Ames well knew) and offered to turn traitor for $50,000. Two months later he handed over a sheaf of documents identifying at least eleven Soviet agents working for the CIA and the Russians realized they had acquired a gold mine. They paid him a fortune but otherwise handled him in exemplary fashion; the books on Ames by David Wise and by Tim Weiner, David Johnston, and Neil A. Lewis of The New York Times provide a kind of Russian tradecraft primer in dead drops, signal sites, eluding surveillance and the like.
The Russians were good at what they did. It was Ames who nearly gave the game away by making numerous large cash deposits in bank accounts in his own name, paying cash for a $540,000 house and a $50,000 white Jaguar sportscar, getting falling-down drunk while on duty, telling friends lame stories about the rich relatives of his Colombian second wife. Rosario, failing to declare the influx of cash on his IRS return, failing to report his frequent meetings with Soviet officials as was required, and failing, as was required, to report his trips out of the country. Added to this, he left letters to and from the Russians on his home computer, threw into the household trash a draft of a note to his Russian handlers, charged airline travel to secret meetings to his personal credit card, and allowed the profligate Rosario to run up $10,000 monthly credit-card and phone bills, while discussing the details of meetings with Russian agents with her over the telephone.
So conspicuous was the flush of sudden wealth in the household following the return of the Ameses from a tour in Rome in 1989 that an old friend immediately connected the money, the frosty, tense impression that Ames and his wife gave to visitors, and the arrest of the agents by the Russians in 1985. But the attention of CIA mole-hunters was soon distracted and the white Jaguar remained a familiar sight in the agency parking lot for another five years.
In the history of secret intelligence this refusal to register the obvious set no precedents. Spying is high-stress work and spies both are and act like desperate men. Indeed the previously most damaging American spy in the CIA’s history, Edward Lee Howard, actually told two CIA officials in September 1984 that he had recently approached the Soviet embassy with thoughts of selling Agency secrets. The truth was he had just done so—but in Vienna, not in Washington. Nevertheless a year passed before the the CIA took Howard’s activities seriously, and then only after the Soviet defector Vitaly Yurchenko told his debriefers in Washington—Aldrich Ames among them—that a certain “Robert” had been selling secrets to the KGB. CIA counterintelligence officials knew immediately it was Howard to whom Yurchenko referred, and after five awful days of prayer for a miracle they finally told the FBI. Howard escaped anyway. What made catching Ames difficult was not picking him out of the crowd, but knowing what would happen next.
- If nobody knows, it didn’t happen.
Among the many consequences of catching Ames nine years late have been the following: the departure of CIA director R. James Woolsey like a whipped dog, the shattering of numerous other Agency careers in a business where longevity counts for a great deal, the CIA’s loss of control over counterintelligence (now transferred to the FBI), the establishment of a new commission to rethink everything about the CIA from its table of organization to its name, the spreading awareness within the CIA’s Directorate of Operations that Ames must have divulged to the Russians virtually every name, technical capacity, and trick of tradecraft they wanted to know; public doubt that the CIA can do anything right; exposure and humiliation of the Agency before a worldwide audience, including everyone who is or who might consider telling secrets to the CIA; and skepticism about the CIA’s ability to catch anything less obvious than an elephant in a telephone booth.
This is typically what happens when intelligence services catch spies in their own ranks. The trouble begins when they are caught. If they are never caught there is no trouble. All interested parties in the CIA understood this back in 1985 when operations of the Soviet/East European Division began to go bad in wholesale fashion. It is the principal reason why the mole-hunters took nine years to catch Ames.
- Secrecy magnifies.
Secret knowledge is a classic example of a double-edged sword—it may convey great power if timely and right, or it can precipitate a disaster if late or wrong. Hitler, to give one example, depended on his intelligence services to tell him where the Allies planned to invade Europe in 1944. If the Abwehr had known that the invasion would take place in Normandy during the first week of June, and if the report had been made a month or two in advance, the battle might have gone differently. Knowing this, Allied intelligence services did everything they could to ensure the Abwehr would not learn the plans, to confuse the Germans about the true meaning of whatever they did know, to feed the Germans false clues of alternative plans, and so on. All the activities of intelligence services may be extrapolated from this model, in which one side strives to learn the intentions of the other, while its opponent works to conceal the truth. A success or failure in these efforts may be small in absolute terms, involving a handful of pieces of paper, or one tapped telephone line or a single person with secret loyalties, while the result may be loss of a battle, a campaign, or even a war.
In an army the man upon whose actions the common fate depends will probably be a general with a public reputation earned during a long career; but in an intelligence service the person who makes all the difference at a crucial moment may be a very ordinary man—bright enough, skilled perhaps, but little more than a visitor to the world of great affairs, modestly paid, mindful of his boss, a fellow with his own ideas and a few friends and a private history of small aspirations and disappointments, just a guy, in short, not all that different from the frequently drunk, chronically broke, easily dismissed figure of Aldrich Ames.
On June 13, 1985, during a bibulous lunch at Chadwick’s restaurant in the Georgetown section of Washington, DC, Ames destroyed a network of CIA agents inside the Soviet intelligence services which had been decades in the making. The implications of the lunch, of the manila envelope he passed to his handler, of the documents it contained were all hugely magnified by the fact that the spies of one superpower in the bowels of another disappeared in a day. But the two superpowers were at peace. If they had been at war the consequences would have been vastly greater.
- The case is never closed.
One of the spies betrayed by Ames was a general recently retired from a long career in the GRU, Dimitri Polyakov. In the early 1960s Polyakov had been stationed in New York City where he was recruited by the FBI, an episode recounted for the first time by David Wise in Nightmover. The FBI gave Polyakov the code name TOPHAT, ran him until he was recalled to the Soviet Union, and then turned him over to the CIA, which maintained intermittent contact with him over the next two decades as he went on with his career as an intelligence officer.
Students of intelligence literature are all familiar with Polyakov as half of a two-man team of FBI spies known as TOPHAT and FEDORA. Both men gave the United States much information about Soviet missile and chemical warfare programs. FEDORA also backed up the story of another Russian defector, Yuri Nosenko, who became a central figure in the ruckus raised by the gray eminence of CIA counterintelligence between 1954 and 1974, James Jesus Angleton, who drove the intelligence services of the Western world frantic with his claims that the Russians had spies everywhere and that all the defectors subsequent to Anatoli Golitsyn—who went over to the CIA in Finland in 1961—were bogus.
The first historian of this controversy was Edward Jay Epstein, who argued in his book Legend: The Secret World of Lee Harvey Oswald, published in 1978, that Nosenko was not a genuine defector but still a KGB agent and that FEDORA’s lies about him proved that both were still working for the Russians. Later Epstein expanded his argument to include TOPHAT. By the time FEDORA (identified by David Wise as one Aleksei Kulak) died of natural causes in 1983 the FBI had reluctantly joined the CIA in concluding that both FEDORA and TOPHAT were phony defectors, sent to deceive. The apparent goals of the KGB in sending them were not trivial; they were supposed to convince the United States that Soviet missile builders lagged behind the US in crucial kinds of technology, and especially in missile guidance, while in fact the Soviets were surging ahead of the United States, and well on their way to building a force of super-accurate, superpowerful missiles that might disarm the Americans in a single surprise attack. Believing that FEDORA and TOPHAT were false defectors, and that the Russians were really embarked on such a course, the Reagan administration began a huge new arms buildup of its own which soon bankrupted the Soviet Union.
But now it appears that Polyakov (TOPHAT) was arrested along with the rest of the spies betrayed by Ames in 1985, and, like many of them, tried, convicted, and executed. Much of what he told the FBI and the CIA supported FEDORA’s most important claims as well. Does that mean both were genuine defectors after all? Must the CIA and historians of the cold war now go back and reinterpret all the conclusions based on the Agency’s assumption that FEDORA and TOPHAT were feeding them disinformation about Soviet missiles?
The Ames case puts a toe in the door of another case as well. CIA analysts have been arguing about the bona fides of Vitaly Yurchenko ever since he slipped his CIA watcher and re-defected to the Russians in November 1985. The CIA has officially insisted he was a genuine defector who changed his mind. But one reason the CIA took so long to catch Ames was the success of Russian stratagems to make the agency think that all sorts of other explanations existed for the arrest of their spies. The most plausible, for a time, was the notion that Edward Lee Howard gave them away. That claim was made by Vitaly Yurchenko. Was he sent to the US to make it?
Such cases refuse to remain closed.
- Something is missing from this story.
In the history of cold war counterintelligence cases there are many examples of spies identified with the help of the reports of defectors. The control and routing of information within intelligence organizations is intended to make catching spies easier, and the analysts go on alert whenever they detect signs the other side knows something it shouldn’t. But it is hard to think of a single spy of significance uncovered by either side without at least some kind of timely tip. When Ames walked into the Soviet embassy in 1985 the CIA had a huge network of spies working within the Soviet intelligence services. The Russians were stunned.
The story of the investigation that eventually led to the arrest of Ames is a classic counterintelligence story because it began with a sense that something was wrong—things were happening that couldn’t happen unless the other side knew. But the investigation that followed took an ungodly amount of time to spot the spendthrift under the agency’s nose. The investigators compiled huge dossiers of incriminating information—including (in September 1992) the fact that Ames had made large cash deposits on the same days in which he had held unreported meetings with Soviet officials. Still they failed to accuse him. What were they waiting for?
A defector. That’s how it’s done. A defector provides a lot of clues about time, place, and identity—generally referred to as “collateral”—and the sleuths then scrutinize his information and draw a conclusion. But first they need a defector with clues.
Did a defector finger Ames?
All of the four books under review describe the Ames case as a combination of CIA and FBI investigations which eventually settled on the culprit. None suggests that any important help came from defectors or spies. But one or two remarks in passing suggest that a big piece of the real story is still unreported. The most explicit of these clues is provided by Tim Weiner and his colleagues, who report that a “source” in Moscow in January 1993 delivered information that “closely matched the conclusions the investigators were drafting.” Peter Maas in Killer Spy reports that the FBI quit poking through Ames’s trash for a time in September 1993 for fear he had been put on the alert by a claim in a recently published book, Ron Kessler’s The FBI, that the Bureau was investigating spies implicated by a former KGB “employee.” Walter Pincus in The Washington Post reported that American officials were helped in the Ames case (1) by access to East German intelligence files (March 6, 1994), (2) by “a former communist official … in early 1993” (April 6, 1994), and (3) by “information given to the FBI by a former communist intelligence official” (October 2, 1994).
None of these claims is amplified in the four recent books on the case, but they help to explain important turning points in the investigation which would otherwise be left hanging—a CIA decision to seek the help of the FBI in May 1991, and the FBI’s decision to open a criminal case against Ames in May 1993. It seems likely the mole-hunters took so long to find Ames because they trusted to the time-honored method—they waited for someone to tell them.
- Old hands are best.
It is part of the folklore of the intelligence world that the best counterintelligence analysts are old and gray and quiet sorts with capacious memories and a talent for fussy attention to detail and a deep respect for fact—the red socks, the preferred brand of cigarette, the crossing of a certain international border on a certain date—and above all the intuitive feel acquired from prolonged immersion in the study of an opponent. Only such prepared minds, it is believed, can exploit the chance of an investigation.
Something similar is certainly true of writing about the intelligence world. Each of the four books reviewed here takes a different approach to the case. James Adams, the Washington bureau chief for the London Sunday Times, was first to reach the bookstores with a serviceable summary of the case. Peter Maas was next with an account of the FBI investigation which includes two things missing from the other books—the story of the pregnant FBI agent whose firm sense of Rosario’s psychology allowed the agent to predict that, handled carefully, Rosario would quickly grasp the chance to save herself by betraying her husband; and an account of the Justice Department’s oddly timid reluctance to approve Rosario’s arrest for fear of criticism it would be leaving the Ameses’ son, Paul, with no parent to care for him.
The account by The New York Times team led by Tim Weiner is distinguished by some beautifully written passages, by a lucid structure which makes sense of the many complications of the investigation, and by a keen appreciation of the ways the case destroyed the career of R. James Woolsey.
But the best of the four books, everything considered, is by David Wise, because he brings to the case the deepest personal knowledge, based on thirty years of inquiry into the history and ethos of the Central Intelligence Agency. The modern study of American intelligence organizations begins with Wise’s book The Invisible Government, written with Thomas B. Ross and published in 1965. Until that time writing about intelligence concentrated almost exclusively on alien efforts at “subversion”—how the Nazis or the Reds tried to steal the secrets of the Free World—and gave only cursory accounts of American spymasters in the hero-worshiping Dick Tracy, G-man mode that was acceptable to the FBI and CIA. The Invisible Government treated the CIA as simply another branch of the American government, fair game for critical analysis and aggressive reporting.
Nightmover is Wise’s eighth book on intelligence, and it is filled with the sort of detail valued by those who seriously want to know what the spooks are up to—names, dates, positions, tables of organization, summaries of cases. Some of this material—for example, Wise’s account of the recruitment of Dimitri Polyakov—may not seem strictly germane to the Ames case. But Wise knows what is new and what is not, and the details of the FBI’s recruitment of Polyakov, which was pushed with uncommon vigor, are too good to ignore. The essence of intelligence work is file-keeping, and the same goes for writing about intelligence. Accurate information about the subject is hard to come by and, as Wise understands, it is the details that count.
- This is not a joke.
“Keystone Cops” is a phrase often invoked in writing about intelligence. The original cops tripped over their own feet on the silent screen, hit each other with their billy clubs, rammed the patrol car into fire hydrants, arrested bystanders pushing baby-strollers while men in masks escaped, and otherwise demonstrated that even ten half-wits may be expected to overlook the fox in the henhouse.
There is plenty of broad farce in the CIA’s handling of the Ames case, but after the laughter fades it remains a fact that the United States spends $29 billion a year for the collection of intelligence, that it has been doing so on a similar scale for nearly fifty years, and that every important episode of the cold war has a clandestine history. Throughout the last half century the United States and the Soviet Union courted and skirted military catastrophe, often with little more to guide them than the clues provided by spies and spymasters, broadly defined, to the intentions of the other side. The spies betrayed by Ames and their predecessors were the source of information that nudged or restrained the deliberations of policy-makers on both sides in subtle ways. Tracing what they knew, when they knew it, and what they did about it presents for historians a problem of recovery and reconstruction of nightmarish difficulty.
Can the addiction of governments to secrecy magnify a wretch like Aldrich Ames into a threat to the nation? Citizens blanch at the thought that questions of war and peace might really depend on the hunger of a spy’s wife for a new kitchen and five hundred pairs of shoes, and historians shrink from trying to sort out the exact degree to which it is really so. This is where the Keystone Cops come to the rescue. It’s easier to laugh the whole thing off.
August 10, 1995